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A dazed and confused Ben Trovato struggles to get a life in a virtual world. Christmas is a time for miracles. Before the week is out, we will look back, shake our heads in wonder and say: “It’s a miracle we survived.” Personally, I am not prepared to chance it. Taking crime, taxi drivers and the aberrant nature of my family into account, the odds of not surviving are disproportionately high. I don’t have enough money to flee the country. I do, however, have plenty of time. Time which I intend spending with my new friends in my new life. My Second Life.

The godlets at Linden Labs must have taken a lot longer than six days to create this world. It’s far more complicated than the one I’m living in at the moment. I am told that once I have explored this vast digital continent teeming with people, entertainment, experiences and opportunity, I might even find a perfect piece of land on which to build my dream house. This is wonderful news. In my first life, I can barely afford to pay the rent.

Then I discover something that sets alarm bells ringing. Millions of US dollars flow through Second Life each month. Although the virtual currency is called the Linden dollar, it can be converted to genuine American money at LindeX, the SL Linden Dollar exchange. Excuse me? I will have to spend real money? My money? On stuff that doesn’t actually exist? This feels wrong.

The SL website opens on a digital babe wearing a bikini top, short skirt and giant black and white wings. Cute. Damn cute.

A registration form asks me to choose a Second Life name. I’m Joumase Troglodite and I’ll probably spend most of my time spelling it to the girls that I meet. But what the hell. If I have anything in Second Life, I have time. It’s not like I’m going to get old and die. Oh, no. None of that mortality nonsense for me.

I have 12 avatars to choose from, none of whom looks remotely like me. I’m assured that I will be able to change my appearance at any time. This is good, because I choose to be some sort of half-rabbit, half-rat.

Another form has just popped up. It wants my real name. They also want to know what country I come from. Things are bound to go horribly wrong. I put Sierra Leone.

Then, instead of being plunged into a brightly coloured Utopian paradise, I am encouraged to Upgrade to Premium Now! For 6 a month, I can get land on which to build, display my creations, entertain or run my own business. In return, I will receive a one-time grant of L1250 (that’s Linden dollars) plus a weekly allowance of L300.

My sphincter tightens reflexively. I am sorely tempted to Skip This Step, but I hesitate. I have been in strange places with no money before and I know how ugly things can turn.

Without my weekly allowance, I’ll be just another random rodent slouching down the street with nothing to do and nowhere to go. It will be a very bleak Christmas.

A payment form flashes up. Well, that’s my cover blown. I fill in my credit card details and submit. Not Authorised. No reasons given. Maybe it’s because I have provided them with two different real names. I skip back a couple of steps. Punch in my real name. Switch Sierra Leone for South Africa. I still get rejected.

It’s no good. I close down and start all over again, feeling increasingly like a refugee trying to get a permit to live in South Africa.

I try once again to upgrade from basic to premium, this time choosing the 9.95/month option. Something seems to have worked. I’m told that my next bill is due on January 8 2008 and I am allowed to buy 512m² of land.

It takes 15 minutes to download Second Life. And there it is. Wow. I am not alone. There are 49610 people logged in right now. At 9pm on a Saturday night.

Up pops a Critical Message. There are Behavioural Guidelines. Contravention of the Big Six will result in suspension or expulsion from the Second Life community. They don’t tell you what the Big Six are, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

As if by magic, I appear on Orientation Island where I will learn to move, communicate and modify my behaviour. A bit like a cross between a hi-tech kindergarten and a reformatory. Half a dozen avatars drift about looking just as lost and confused as me. Our names hover above our heads, making anonymity impossible.

I am no longer a rodent . I am now a handsome young avatar in jeans and a black shirt. Rather nice, if you ask me.

Talking is done through a stereo headset and microphone or by typing in your comments. Conversations appear on the screen, making typing errors seem like some sort of speech defect.

I turn around to find the sublimely named Satine Odriscoll watching me. “Hey babe,” I type. “Wanna grab some egg nog?” She stares at me in silence. No response. What’s the matter with this girl?

“Have you lost your hands?” I type. Still nothing. “Are you a mute?” I add. Suddenly she runs off. In tears, probably.

One of the tutorials on Orientation Island involves going to the library and fetching a torch. I want a beer, not a torch. Anyway, I do as they ask and I am pleased to see that it is at least a torch of the flaming variety.

Uh-oh. Someone called Samehabo Kanto has snuck up behind me and is clearly ogling my bum. What does she want? Why doesn’t she say something? What if it’s not even a girl? In my confusion, I somehow manage to attach three or four flaming torches to different parts of my anatomy. Everyone avoids me after that.

Bored with the tutorials, I inadvertently take off my pants. Luckily I have on a pair of white undies. This will almost certainly make my intentions a little clearer. I look around for someone to chat to, but I find myself all alone. Oh my God! Those aren’t undies! That’s my bum! I’m naked!

Then I have some sort of fit. My head shakes violently back and forth. Am I sick? How will I ever find a doctor? Fortunately, the shaking stops after a while and I wander off. I walk and walk and walk and see nobody at all. Great. Lost my way. Lost my pants. But look — I can fly! I soar over the sea and back across the island looking for parties to gate-crash.

When I finally land, Disco Randt comes up to me and asks me why my pants are off. I shrug and type, “You should know — you took them off.” Disco replies, “Yeah right” and hurries away.

Help Island is proving to be no help at all. Somehow I manage to teleport myself somewhere. A group of people are standing about chatting. Great. Maybe they know the way out. But from what I can pick up, they know very little about anything at all. They have mouths like sewers and say LOL in every sentence. They ignore me completely.

Disconsolately shambling along a path leading to nowhere, I come across an enormous billboard. It features a resident with some sort of No Entry sign over his crotch: “Please Don’t Walk Around Naked.”

Dumping reality in a crumpled heap on the bathroom floor, I fire up the Acer with fresh enthusiasm. Today, I’ll buy a house. Today, I’ll find a Christmas party. Today, I’ll … Hang on. Where’s my money? I’ve paid 9.95 and there’s still nothing in my account.

Cuwynne Deerhunter walks up to me. She is well-dressed and neatly groomed. I’m glad that I have my pants on. I type: “I am hungry. Please can I have some money to buy a loaf of bread? And maybe a house.” She calls me a loser and stalks off.

With nothing better to do, I drop by the offices of Uthango, the first South African not-for-profit company to open virtual offices in SL, to see if someone there could lend me money. Apart from me, the place is empty. Then again, it is a Sunday.

With nothing else to do I decide to go to the pub on the corner where the girls are friendly and the beers are cold. Spending Christmas in the real world might not be so bad, after all.

(TheTimes)

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